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Safe Sex Pt 1: SlutTalk, FOSTA/SESTA, and the Rights of Sex Workers in Chicago

By News

Illustration by Catherine Cao.

Sex work is, as they say, the oldest profession in the world. Chances are you know someone who has made money on a cam site, as an escort, using a chat service, or as an independent contractor. In recent years, most of this was made possible through websites that allowed sex workers to screen and book their own clients. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) package bill is putting an end to that.

The bill, which clarifies the country’s sex trafficking law to make it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, passed the Senate with a vote of 97 to 2 on March 21. It was supported by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Senior Project Manager and Human Trafficking Coordinator at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Marian Hatcher.

According to the Cook County Sheriff’’s website, Dart has “… fought vehemently against online companies’ promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking, having sued Craigslist to seek the removal of its ‘Erotic Services’ section in 2009 and taking further efforts against like companies. He has also been a champion for survivors and sought to end demand for sex buying through his National Johns Suppression Initiative.”

Hatcher — a former sex worker who now advocates for FOSTA/SESTA and coordinates with the National Johns Suppression Initiative — has time and again denounced the legitimacy of sex work. She was also the recipient of the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama in 2017 for her efforts in the fight against sex trafficking, prostitution, and domestic violence.

Some sex workers and community allies don’t believe that the initiatives supported by Dart, Hatcher, and many others, are creating platforms for positive change.

Alicia Swiz — professor, performer, feminist, and creator of SlutTalk, “a public dialogue that raises awareness of slut shaming and encourages sex positivity through performances, workshops, public dialogues, and social media” – hosted a SlutTalk event called “Kiss and Tell: Let’s Talk about Sex Work” on May 30. For the event, she invited Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago (SWOP Chicago) co-founder Betty DeVoe and Sex Kiki host Coriama Couture to join her in discussing some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the sex work industry.

Topics ranged from pleasure as a form of resistance to the common misconception that sex work and sex trafficking are one and the same. The hosts were asked questions by members of the audience about their work and their experiences with clients, law enforcement, and platforms that discriminate against sex workers (a working list of which can be found here).

In a follow-up email conversation with Swiz after the event I asked her about SlutTalk as a platform for women.

“SlutTalk was triggered by a combination of things: doing comedy in Chicago and witnessing the gross amount of rape and sexual assault humor from men mostly about women, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the explicit misogyny of Donald Trump specifically around women’s bodies, and I just thought we need more women talking,” said Swiz.

“And specifically more women talking about sex. More women talking period but more women talking about the sex they’re having or not having, their bodies, more women controlling the narrative of sex and desire.”

As far as the current state of sex work in Chicago is concerned and what the impact of FOSTA/SESTA will be, Swiz maintained that the bill is the “epitome of the ignorance and malice of our current administration.” She suggested that a large part of the problem seems to be the misunderstanding that sex work and sex trafficking are one in the same.

“By conflating two issues that are completely different — consensual sex work and sex trafficking — they affect not only people who make a living and rely on internet resources — predominantly women as the recent social media censorship has been applied only to women and femme language — but also deflect time, energy, and awareness of the real issue. The act is meant to fight sex trafficking. But none of the men in politics want to actually fight sex trafficking; they want to stop sexually empowered women who are cashing in on their own bodies.”

Leah Levine, a sex worker and organizer, agreed to chat with me about the current state of sex work in Chicago and what that means for the safety of the community.

“Sex work in Chicago is currently unsafe by nature of the law. Chicago has many pockets of street workers that have been targeted by police more than usual this year, particularly in Rogers Park, Albany Park, and Garfield Park. Politicians like our Sheriff Tom Dart fought hard to pass laws that restrict the rights of sex workers so heavily,” said Levine.

The “Sex Work and Trafficking: A Donor–Activist Dialogue on Rights and Funding” report from the December 2008 Conference between Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), and Sexual Health and Rights Project/Open Society Institute (SHARP) defines sex trafficking as involving “one individual or group coercing or tricking another individual into entering the sex trade for purposes of exploitation. As such, it entails a gross abuse of human rights.”

The report goes on to define sex workers as “…men, women, or transgender persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include sexual intercourse or other services such as phone sex. In sharp contrast to sex trafficking, sex workers are not coerced into this industry. People engage in sex work for many reasons, but they make the decision of their own accord. Equating sex work and sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it.”

I reached out to Megan Rosenfeld, the Policy Director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) to ask about FOSTA/SESTA and how CAASE is working to help those involved in sex work and the sex trade.

“To start, I’d like to take a moment to clarify terms — when I hear ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker,’ I think of folks who have many options for survival and choose to make money working in the sex trade. In CAASE’s experience, that is an extreme minority of people selling sex. Most of the folks we speak with and all of the research we’ve read show that people selling sex are generally the least privileged among us, and are coerced into the sex trade by poverty or a trafficker/pimp,” said Rosenfeld.

“Collapsing all people who sell sex under the umbrella term of ‘sex worker’ further marginalizes those who are most vulnerable. None of the survivors of the sex trade I’ve worked with or spoken with prefer to use that term – that includes folks who have traditional trafficking stories and folks who wouldn’t identify as being trafficked but have engaged in the sex trade because of their circumstances (which include abusive partners, substance use, and poverty).”

Though Rosenfeld declined to comment on the state of the consensual sex work community because CAASE works with those who have experienced the sex trade “due to lack of other meaningful choices or were otherwise coerced or forced into it,” she did say that the survivors she has worked with are thrilled with the passing of the FOSTA/SESTA. She agrees that sex work and sex trafficking are not the same and reiterated that, “…CAASE’s consideration and primary concerns are for the most marginalized: victims who, because of an overlapping system of oppressions, have few choices and fewer options for justice.”

Rosenfeld told me that she was lucky enough to be in attendance during a survivor-led symposium when the law was passed and sites like Backpage were seized.

“The survivors I was with expressed joy. They were pleased that the millionaire, white male owners of these websites could no longer profit from the abuse of vulnerable people.”

So what does that mean for sex workers in Chicago and the rest of the country who continue to express their dismay at the loss of websites that once helped them screen clients, talk to other sex workers, and protect themselves from exploitation at the hands of pimps or managers? Every day new articles and blog posts surface with countless sex workers decrying the law saying that it does very little in terms of actually helping victims of sex trafficking and instead allows police to more easily control and criminalize women.

“Tom Dart is a large part of why SESTA/FOSTA were passed I can’t imagine things getting better for sex workers at all until we address that on a larger scale,” said Leah Levine.

“Community policing of low-income trans people and women of color is increasing under our current political climate, so it’s hard to believe it will get better anytime soon. People have some far-fetched idea that they can end transactional sex between consenting adults, and the reality is, that will never happen.”

SWOP Chicago can be contacted at (312) 252-3880 or meg@swop-chicago.org. Other organizations and community-based groups involved in related activism include Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), Moms Against United Violence and Incarceration, Chicago Community Bond Fund, Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective and Fund, A Long Walk Home, and Chicago Period Project.

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